Esopus's Modern Artifacts
A collection of the art journal’s lushly illustrated pages featuring ephemera and documents from the Museum of Modern Art’s archive with newly commissioned artists’ portfolios and essays.
(Esopus Books, 2020)
In 2006, the artist, writer, and musician Tod Lippy invited Michelle Elligott, Chief of Archives at the Museum of Modern Art, to contribute a column to Esopus, his lushly tactile arts journal that had published a multifarious range of artists’ projects, essays, fiction, interviews, and music since its founding in 2003. The resulting feature highlighted underseen holdings from MoMA’s archive, bundling a short introductory essay by Elligott (or the museum’s archivist, Michelle Harvey, when Elligott was on leave) with richly detailed, full-page reproductions of documents, ephemera, and photographs related to a single theme, artist, or program, such as the museum’s Living Garden event series or its Arts Lending Service. Though Esopus ceased publication as a journal in 2018, the new book Modern Artifacts collects these 18 features and combines them with six freshly commissioned artist’s projects, a foreword by Lippy, and an introduction by Elligott tracking the development and ethos of the series.
In this introduction, Elligott writes, “One reason for my attraction to archives lies in the secrets, the untold stories, the forgotten realities, and the multiple truths that they contain within. They don’t just document what happened. But sometimes (and more importantly, at times) they document what did not happen, for better or worse, and why. The machinations sometimes reveal more than the outcome.” The documents reproduced in Modern Artifacts testify to these erasures, misfires, pivots, and gambles ingrained in the museum’s history but elided in external perceptions of MoMA as a canon-shaping behemoth. Sometimes these erasures are literal, as evidenced in the first entry, devoted to the formation of director Alfred Barr’s famous teleological diagram for the Cubism and Abstract Art catalogue (1936) through multiple drafts. At other times, projects were developed that never came to fruition, as with a proposed 1940 show with the James Bond-like code name “Exhibition X.” The fascinating memos and documents reveal plans for an immersive, quasi-propagandistic presentation that would spur visitors to advocate for US involvement in World War II, with sequential spaces including the “Avenue of American Character and History,” “Goals for Us the Living,” and the chilling “Advance of Fascism Hall,” meant to warn Americans of the grim future that could come to pass without intervention. Faced with doubts about the exhibition’s potential effectiveness and its high cost, the museum’s Executive Committee did not approve the exhibition plan.
Other entries document private correspondences and intimate scholarly processes. Several of these reveal the artistic talents of staff members, such as excerpts from the meticulous sketchbooks of René d’Harnoncourt, director of the museum from 1949 to 1967, and evocative photographs by William Seitz, associate curator of painting and sculpture from 1960 to 1965. Another chapter includes reproductions and photographs of correspondence between the conceptual artist James Lee Byars and Dorothy Miller, curator of painting and sculpture from 1934 to 1969. Byars and Miller first met when the young artist showed up at the museum in 1958, asking for an introduction to Mark Rothko. Miller was impressed with Byars’s work and, after the two stayed in touch, she invited him to display his artworks in the museum’s emergency-exit stairwell. Byars’s letters, written in a childlike scrawl, unfold on sheets of tissue paper, scrolls, and notecards, and, as Elligott notes, his salutations shift from “Miss Miller” to “Dot,” “Angel,” and “Sweetie” as he and Miller become closer over time.
The six artist’s projects by Michael Rakowitz, Mary Lum, Mary Ellen Carroll, Clifford Owens, Rhea Karam, and Paul Ramirez Jonas are interspersed throughout the book, offering a sense of personalized commentary between the archival groupings. Rakowitz riffs off of Exhibition X and the historical exodus of European artists to New York before and during World War II, including his own proposal for a show spotlighting the movement to Amman, Jordan by artists fleeing recent conflicts in other Middle Eastern countries. Lum offers a formal exercise, collaging images of works from the 1961 exhibition The Art of Assemblage with photographs of documents related to the show’s planning and execution. Owens and Carroll, on the other hand, present their own work as filtered through the visual templates of archival documents, resulting in a blurring of past and present. Rhea Karam includes a transcript of her affecting conversation with Robert Janz, whose Line on a Walk (1976) chalk drawings she encountered in the museum archives, interspersed with photographs and a removable silkscreen print. Jonas’s vibrant “MoMA and DADA” is a colorful timeline that mingles the events of Ramirez Jonas’s father’s life and political developments in Honduras with landmark dates in MoMA’s engagement with the Dada movement, resulting in an affecting, politically-charged mix of the personal and the institutional.
While the documents included in Modern Artifacts were carefully selected by Elligott and framed by her descriptions, the aesthetics of the book also reproduce the more serendipitous, detective-like pleasures of the archival research process. Photographs of memos, ephemera, and scrapbook pages include the edges of other items contained within archival folders, hinting at a vast storehouse of material scraps and traces. Inserts and fold-outs, such as reproductions of a Byars letter, a folder with documents from Henri Matisse’s first US retrospective, and a Robert Indiana Christmas card produced by the Museum’s Junior Council, allow readers to understand the scale and heft of archival documents, and to potentially circulate these items further. Through its creative, subjective approach to the archive, Modern Artifacts offers a winding view of MoMA, and the development of 20th Century art at large, with space for captivating storytelling, revealing dead-ends, and visual invention.